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Civilizations Hardcover – 6 Oct 2000

3.4 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 636 pages
  • Publisher: Macmillan; 1st edition (6 Oct. 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0333901711
  • ISBN-13: 978-0333901717
  • Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 5.2 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,010,808 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product description

Amazon Review

It is, perhaps, in the end, too long. When the discussion turns to the recent past and a speculative future, its course has been run. However, for the subject it is comparatively terse (Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History ran to 12 toe-stubbing volumes), and the preceding 500 pages have blown by with the heady gusto of a prevailing wind, leaving the dedicated reader short of breath. Felipe Fern´ndez-Armesto is provocative, naughty, and deeply intelligent. He enjoys language in a way few modern novelists do, let alone historians, and his panoramic sweep of the world's civilizations is a proud and preening gesture, through which he rejects, as Norbert Elias did, civilization as a self-referential western concept, and embraces a multi-civilizational world, free of a linear interpretation of time. His aim is to return humankind to its "natural" context, from which for much of the previous few centuries he has, at least in western culture, expended considerable energy extricating itself. Civilizations, resolutely in the plural, are wrought, he contends, through a systematic refashioning of nature, with occasional conditional deferments. Whether through mutual contact or exclusivity, on the frozen tundra, desert sandscapes, highlands, lowlands, grasslands or fertile alluvial plains, and with timber, mud, stone or metal, human beings have consistently come together and shaped their communities accordingly, from the Phoenicians, Aztecs and Romans to the (now-extinct) bird-eating population of the Hebridean island of Hirta. It's all about food, of course, as the Greek empire's growth from the humble olive tree illustrates, but also wind and oceans, migration and colonialism, and while he speculates that the future might lie with a Pacific culture succeeding its Atlantic equivalent, both are still fledglings compared to the Indian Ocean's role in shaping history. The author of Millennium, Fern´ndez-Armesto enlivens his voluble anthropology with empirical tales of, and from, countless travellers, while almost nonchalantly lacing his whirlwind polemic with exquisite literary reference as his appraising lens zooms in and out like a hovering hawk. He calls it an "experimental work", and "written in something like a frenzy". That may be, but it's also daring, richly allusive, and maddeningly thrilling. --David Vincent


Timothy Mo "The Independent" Grand comparative histories have become respectable again. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's "Civilizations" is the latest bravura step in this rehabilitation. Do not expect a neutral account of the ascent of man from barbarism. This is a contentious, provocative work, full of utterly original and sometimes perverse perspectives. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Around the world and through the ages, "Civilizations" takes the reader on a journey of discovery. Exotic lands, inhospitable climates and tantalising glimpses of forgotten cultures are all here.
The author has taken the approach of classifying civilisations not by their technological prowess or social structure, but by the geography in which they sustain themselves. Thus, chapters cover icy wastes, grassland, jungle, desert, etc,.
I was tempted to read this book by the promise of historical anecdotes and a wider coverage of human civilisation than most authors offer. Although Egypt, Greece and China have their place in this book, the reader is also allowed to stay for a while among the Mongol horde, voyage with the pioneering navigators of Polynesia and shiver in the mountains of Tibet.
Emphasis is placed on tradelinks and resources, but the author is quite happy to allow the figures of history to emerge from the landscape and make their presence known. There are quotes and extracts, as well as observations about the reasons for these expressions.
The prose is quite dry in places, yet in others it is as if you have the whole scene made real in front of you. When I read of the horrendous conditions of Frederik Hendrik Island, and the curious way in which its inhabitants survived there, I could feel my skin crawl and my boots fill with ooze, even as I sat on the bus into work.
Considering the great number of pages and the detail on each of them, I decided even before opening the book that it would be best read by selecting the most enigmatic culture and working my way down to the most familiar. I dip in, read some fascinating passage or enthralling chapter, and wait another day to read the next.
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By A Customer on 15 Oct. 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is such an amazingly readable book. It looks dauntingly long, but once you're into it you're hooked. I read it over a weekend. Fernandez-Armesto can write like a novelist, but also is a complete polymath in his approach. It's so much more than straight linear history. It's exciting, mind-opening stuff. It's so unusual to finish a book feeling genuinely excited by the information and ideas contained within it. I can't recommend it too highly.
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Format: Paperback
The book's thesis is that a civilization can be judged by the way it adapts and interacts with the environment. It starts in a promising way, but though he is very good with the anecdotal part of history, the book lacks the ability to link this evidence to his theory in a coherent way. The book leaves you wanting more analysis.
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Format: Hardcover
For those of you, who, like me, have delved into the canon of works on civilisations, this may be a welcome breeze of fresh air. F-A gives a refreshed definition on the difficult and timeless question of what actually is civilisation. A whirlwind account, in the prose of a professional poet, through various states, past and present, all with respect to their environment. Those who have read Jared Diamond's excellent 'Guns, Germs and Steel' will find this a useful corollory. This book encapsulates the sheer diversity and magesty of the world's people, without the stagnation caused by categorization as so often found in these books.
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Format: Paperback
It took me a long time to read this book and I undertake this review with less enthusiasm than that for any other review I’ve written. It’s not that I think this book is particularly bad, I don’t. Rather I find it hard to think of anything worthwhile to say and I fear that my review may bear a resemblance to its subject in that the whole may be less than the sum of its parts.
The author tells us, “I have written it in something like a frenzy, anxious to get down what I wanted to say before I forgot it. No mature deliberation has formed it.”
It shows.
It is said – though I don’t think anyone has traced the source – that when asked about modern/Western (depending on who’s telling the story) civilization that Gandhi replied that it would be a good idea.
This book was a good idea but not one properly realized.
My first difficulty is with the book’s title and a problem with word usage in the English language. The noun “civilization” and the adjective “civilized” may have the same root but members of a given civilization may deal with less powerful, “uncivilized” people in a very uncivilized manner e.g. the treatment of the Tasmanian Aborigines.
In Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s own description of this work, "Unlike previous attempts to write the comparative history of civilizations, it is arranged environment by environment, rather than period by period or society by society." Each of the groups he examines is labelled a civilization. Now as Alfred Crosby has written, “Civilization is a saltpeter of a word, often triggering explosive arguments. I use it not in moral comment, but simply in reference to peoples settled in cities, villages, hamlets, and to the kind of political, economic, social, and military structures associated with such populations.
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